Thursday, May 13, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #3 - Luing

From Seil we set a course through Cuan Sound to steam down the coast of Luing. It happens to be a Friday, and for fish Fridays I installed a deep fryer in the galley so we can have fish & chips. The chef complained that if the ship pitched and rolled he'd get splashed with hot oil. But since calm seas have been guaranteed on this cruise I told him to buck up and get with the program. He then pleaded we do fish pie instead, so I made him walk the plank. He now feeds the fishes (and not in the usual sense).

Halfway down Luing we enter the narrow Shuna Sound. Off to port is the island of Shuna, which has a reputation of not welcoming day-trippers, so we give it a pass and drop the anchor off the sleepy village of Toberonochy. I always think of it as sleepy because the first time I visited Toberonochy was on a Sunday afternoon in 1997. Not a soul was to be seen as I walked through the village. But I did see a few curtains being pulled aside, curious eyes peeking out to see who was violating the sabbath. If anyone had challenged me (none did, though I've heard of it happening) I'd have stoked the fire by asking directions to the nearest pub.

Luing is one of the Slate Isles, and next to the village is a flooded quarry pit. In the coming days we'll be visiting the other Slate Isles of Belnahua and Fladda. From Toberonochy a five minute walk takes us up to Kilchattan church, which has not been used for 300 years.


The floor of the old church is paved solid with a hundred worn tombstones, and lying in the adjacent cemetery is the famous grave of Alexander Campbell. Campbell died in 1829, and his self-carved tombstones stand near the road. There are three slabs to read, and I have to confess that when I first saw them in 1997 I stopped reading halfway through the second stone. On the first is his well known protestation:

I protest that none be buried after me in this grave which I have dug for myself . . . having adhered till death to the whole work of the second reformation in Scotland  . . .  and died in full assurance of the heavenly inheritance. 

Campbell's Grave (at centre against the wall)
I’m glad Campbell had full assurance of his heavenly inheritance, and it looked like no one has dug him up to take over his little plot. His essay continues on another slab standing against the cemetery wall, and then ran on to a third stone facing the road on the other side of the wall. These stones ranted against “…popish prelacy…popish Erastianism…popish monuments…” I won’t go on, you get the hatefull gist. They also condemned anyone who dared to meddle with his stones. Although humans may have not meddled with them, two centuries of Hebridean weather has worn out much of the carved text. And in the two-decades since my last visit rampant vegetation has grown around, into the stones, causing one to crack and fall to the side. The following photo shows how the grave looked in 1997 (left) and how it looks today.

Kilchattan Church has a much better attraction than Campbell's grave, for there are carvings of West Highland galleys on three of its walls. The carvings on the north and west walls are very faint. But on a stone in the south wall you can still make out the hulls of four galleys, including one where you can clearly make out timber planking, mast, and riggings.

These carving may date to the last week in the life of King Alexander II. In early July of 1249 AD, Alexander's fleet passed through the area seeking a meeting with Eoghan MacDhonnchaidh MhicDhugaill. This ‘Ewen’ was the son of the Lord of Argyll, and Alexander wanted him to renounce his allegiance to Haakon of Norway. Alexander died of fever on July 8, 1249, at Horseshoe Bay on the isle of Kerrera, fifteen miles to the north. These petroglyphs may have been made by residents of Luing at the time, or by crewman ashore from the passing fleet.

Our group's fearless guide then leads us to the end of the road at Blackmill Bay. Blackmill is a shadow of its former self. It was once a busy port, but all we find there today are the crumbling remains of its old pier and ticket office. (The ticket office is on the buildings at risk website, which means it’s doomed.) It would be interesting to see Blackmill Bay in its heyday, when livestock, slate, passengers, and goods passed through on the way to and from Oban and Glasgow.



Decades ago Blackmill Bay, and Cullipool to the north, were the place to seek out a fisherman to take you to Scarba or the Garvellachs. These days a day trip to those islands can be hard to find (aside from an expensive private day-charter). Just north of the old pier they've constructed a modern stone breakwater. Behind it a solitary boat bobbed on the swells. It's just a thought, but maybe the owner would take you to Scarba or the Garvellachs if you ask. Better yet, sign on to a cruise on Hjalmar Bjorge.

Our exploration of south Luing complete we return to the ship. Back aboard we gather in the saloon to eagerly await our fish & chips. Our cook had walked the plank earlier in the day, so I'd promoted Nigel, one of our frequent flyers, to be chef. Soon plates of steaming fish and chips are set before us, and we dig in. But the skipper screams when he discovers Nigel fried the fish with the skin on. Skin-on fish & chips!  Egads, what's next? Marmite sandwiches? As punishment Nigel will have to sleep in the engine room for a week. 

The next morning we weigh anchor and set off for our next destination: Eilean Righ, the King's Isle of Loch Craignish.

Friday, May 7, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #2 - Seil

Leaving Kerrera in our wake we set a course to the southwest. Our next island-fall is only four miles away, and so after a short half hour of motoring we drop the anchor near Puilladobhrain - the otter's pool - a sheltered spot on the northwest corner of Seil Island. Ships like Hjalmar Bjorge require deeper water than the Otter's Pool, so we have to drop anchor just west of Eilean Buidhe, which shelters the pool from the sea. Puilladobhrain itself is a popular anchorage for many reasons, but the main one is that a short path leads across the the island to Clachan Seil and the Tigh an Truish pub. As indicated in the following extract from the Pilot's Guide to the area, the anchorage at Puilladobhrain can be busy:

The name translates as Pool of the Otter, although any otters have long since been scared away by the yachts . . . this is one of the West Coast's most popular anchorages, and you will be lucky to find less than a dozen and a half yachts there on any evening in July.

And on those busy July evenings you can count on a steady stream of yotties braving the sometimes boggy half mile walk to the pub, then stumbling back in the dark after last call; all trying to remember where they stashed their tender, and which one of the forest of masts is their boat. Not that I've ever been in that exact situation, but I have had a few less-than-sober searches for a boat in the dark. Once, on a pitch-black rainy evening in Tobermory some 20 years ago, a group of us left the MacDonald Arms a bit inebriated. Our ship was 'double parked' at the ferry terminal; the Kilchoan RO-RO was moored directly to the pier, and ours was tied to its far side. Down the ladder into the slippy car deck we went, then back up the other side of the ferry to cross over to our boat. (I am lucky to be alive).

Once ashore on Seil we find the yottie's boat-boot-beaten path that leads to Clachan Bridge and Tigh an Truish. Clachan Bridge is often called the Bridge over the Atlantic, and dates to the 1790s. Its high arch rises 40 feet above the channel, and its single lane is a blind summit for drivers. In the summer those drivers need to be careful, as the bridge is often clogged with tourists who like to walk to the top.



The nexus of the village is Tigh an Truish, the house of trousers. As the story goes, in the 18th century cattle drovers on their way to the mainland stopped here to change out of the forbidden kilt and don a pair of pants. The Gaelic word for a pub is 'taigh-seinnse', which means change house. But instead of changing into trousers, the 'change' (in days or yore) was associated with changing out your tired nag for a fresh rental horse. (Would you like insurance? And please be sure to return it with a full bale of hay.)  Another translation of taigh-seinnse I've heard is 'house of singing', which makes more sense for an island pub.

After a pint (or two) our group stumbles back along the path to Puilladobhrain. There are a few boggy sections to tip-toe through where you can lose the path, but the fearless guide keeps them from going astray. He has all his wits about him, having faithfully followed the GGGGG (Good Guide's Guide to Good Guiding), which calls for abstaining from strong drink while on duty. (If you believe that I have a Bridge over the Atlantic for sale.)

The Otter's Pool is a beautiful sight, especially on a sunny May day before the summer onslaught of yachts arrive. After eating our packed lunches on its shore we board the tender and are soon back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge. The dual diesels are fired up and we set a course down the Sound of Insh to our next destination: the Isle of Luing. As we do the chef starts preparing the evening meal, and a cheer goes up from everyone aboard when they hear it's steak pie night. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Island #1 - Kerrera

Kerrera is the only large Hebridean island just a five minute boat ride from a major town. And as such, is the island I have visited more times than any other. The nearby town is Oban of course, whose fleshpots have led many a sailor astray. I, of course, am immune to such temptations these days. Though I have to confess to several late night stumbles back to the pier in the days of my misspent, wayward youth. Back then you had to climb down slippy iron ladders to board ship. These days, with the new marina in place, the only obstacle is trying to get a booze-fogged brain to remember the passcode to the gate - or so I'm told. (Now, is it 12345 or 54321?)

But getting back to Kerrera. I first set foot on the island in 1993. In those days you turned a large signboard to show its white side to let the ferryman know you wanted to cross. (A hundred years ago there was a 'winding-siren', a sure fire way to waken a sleeping boatman over on Kerrera.)  But, since we have our own ship, we have no need to wake any sleeping boatman. We'll drop the anchor at the south end of the island off Port a' Chasiteil, the landing place for Gylen Castle. Once ashore we're greeted by the best view of Gylen Castle, looking up from below.


A climb up to the west leads to the top of the cliffs. From there you get a full view of the 50 foot high tower house. I have seen its Gaelic name, Caisteal nan Geimhlean, translated as 'Castle of Springs', but the word Geimhlean can mean enslavement, or imprisonment, so the name may translate to 'The Prison'.


Gylen is architecturally known for its oriel window. Inset in the window is a carving of a woman’s head; her long hair spreading down and out in both directions to become a cable moulding that runs along the bottom of the window. One braid of her hair winds around to the carving of a man in a skull-cap, who is pulling on this rope of hair (left side of photo). Her other braid winds around to the carving of what looks to be a man wearing a helmet or, as was reported by a visitor in 1800, a bagpipe player, who is also pulling on the rope of hair. It would be interesting to know the story behind this tug-of-war for the lady’s attention. Which course in life do you think she chose? Life with a musician, or life as a religious?


A stroll through the entrance doorway leads through a vaulted passageway to the small outer courtyard. When I first visited Gylen the courtyard was wide open, these days a metal railing keeps the clumsy from falling off the cliff.

The first floor hall with its projecting garderobe and large fireplace is accessible, but the circular stairway to the upper floors and the caphouse no longer exists.


Gylen was the scene of a bloody massacre in the year 1647. The castle was a stronghold of the Macdougals (royalists), and was besieged by a force of covananters. After running low on water the Macdougals surrendered. The covananters then proceeded to kill all the prisoners and burn the castle.   

Before leaving Kerrera we make the mile long hike, and 600 foot climb, to the top of the island. The view there encompasses Mull to the west, Oban to the north, and to the south many of the islands we will be visiting next.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Virtual Cruise 2021

April 24th was to have been the start of my fifth cruise as a guide on the ship Hjalmar Bjorge. But Covid cancelled it, as it did last year's cruise. Instead of moping around, I've decided to virtually commandeer Hjalmar Bjorge and, as Master and Commander, take her to all the Hebridean isles I've visited over the past thirty-plus years. Our cruise will take several months, and during those months I guarantee sunny skies, calm seas, whales, eagles and otters galore - and no midges when we go ashore. I can also guarantee that no matter how long the cruise is we will not run out of beer and fish pie will never dare to appear on the menu. (And any passenger who requests said dish will suffer 50 lashes on the poop deck and then be sent below to scrub the heads.)

So join us next time as we motor out of a sunny Oban and starboard the helm (turn left), and as we do we'll give a friendly wave to the Captain of the Macbrayne's Ferry. He'll be blowing his horn at us, under the delusion that he's King Neptune, and we need to yield the right of way - well, maybe we should . . .

Our first stop will be Kerrera, where we'll see the jewel in its crown, Gylen Castle, before making our way south to the Garvellachs, the Slate Isles, Jura, Scarba, Gigha, Cara, and more.

Monday, January 25, 2021

One-handed Typing

I have been a bit delinquent at blogging. I recently had shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff tendon. I was on a hike last year where we had to hold on to ropes for safety while descending some steep hillsides. I slipped and the rope saved me. But with the added weight of the pack the stress on my arm tore the tendon. As a result I am limited to typing with one hand, which is a slow process. I hope to be in shape to hike again in a few months, and to once again raise a toast to the Western Isles in the Western Isles.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Cumbrae Castle

I have only been to Little Cumbrae once, and that was way back in 2008. One highlight, among many, was climbing to the top of Little Cumbrae Castle. The castle is not actually on Little Cumbrae itself, but an adjacent tidal islet marked on the map as Castle Island. Next to this island the map shows a reef named Trail Island, an odd name for a small island with no trails. A bit of research showed the name to be a corruption of Eilean Turrail, a shortening of Eilean Tur-uasail, the island of the nobleman's tower. So the perhaps with a lower sea-level centuries ago the reef was once part of Castle Island.


The castle is a square keep that dates to the fifteenth century. Crowned by a parapet, it stands three storeys tall. Cut into the walls are several arrow slits, and splayed gun loops in the basement walls allowed canon fire to be directed towards the sea. A modern wooden stairway gave access to the first floor, where I found the hall and kitchen, each with its own fireplace. From there a restored circular stairway led to the second floor, which had two rooms, each with fireplace and garderobe. I followed the stairway up to the top, and emerged from the caphouse to stand atop the open roof.

The view was expansive. A kingly view in fact, for in 1375 Robert II dwelt for a time in an earlier fortification that stood here. The Earl of Eglinton had this castle built a hundred years later, and in the seventeenth century it was in the hands of the sixth Earl. He did not get along with Cromwell, and in 1653 Cromwell’s troops came a-calling, leaving the castle in ruins. 

Returning to Little Cumbrae is high on my list of must-dos. During the visit in 2008 I was unable to find the chapel of St Bey, which had been the main reason I'd gone to the island. In the years since I've learned the exact location of the chapel, and made plans to return in 2020. But Covid raised its ugly head and those plans are on hold.

What follows are a few photos from a visit to Little Cumbrae Castle in 2008. Note that in the first photo of the castle tower you can also see the massive Hunterston nuclear power plant a mile away on the mainland; two towers of power separated by 500 years of history. 












Saturday, December 12, 2020

Please, Sir, Can I have some more?

More breakfast fun in Scotland . . . 

On our first visit to Scotland my wife and I took my parents with us. It was 1989, and after exploring the Loch Lomond area we drove north to Fort Willian. As we approached the town we saw a vacancy sign at the Innseagan Hotel, and decided to spend the night there. We enjoyed a quiet evening, and in the morning the four of us went down for breakfast. As usual, there was a table filled with an assortment of cereals, and another table with a tray of tiny glasses set next to pitchers of apple and orange juice.

I proceeded to scoop some corn flakes into a bowl, and to fill one of those tiny glasses with orange juice. As I made my way to a table I heard a shout.

"Sir . . . Sir . . ."

"Yes", I replied.

"Please, Sir. You can have cereal, or juice, but not both." I had to return the juice. That was my introduction, and a still lingering memory, of Fort William. Good times.